Book Review: Christianity, Climate Change & Sustainable Living

December 01, 2008

Book Review: Christianity, Climate Change & Sustainable Living

In the early hours of the morning I sit quietly at my desk. Listen! Listen to the dull moan of muffled engines as they roll by, generously emitting a stream of carbon dioxide that will linger long beneath the stars. Nearby someone has left a clothes dryer wailing. Can you hear it? Inside are clothes that have been dry for hours, tumbling needlessly and beginning to shrink. I ponder the possibility of being taxed for the carbon emissions indirectly produced by my computer as it draws power while I work. I consider the concept of road pricing whereby a satellite-tracking device would be attached to my car for all my journeys to be monitored and charged according to the type of vehicle I drive and the ‘time and place of [the] journey’(pp180-181). ‘How outrageous’, I can hear some of you cry. ‘What a contemptible violation of our basic human right to privacy!’ However, within the context of climate change, could such seemingly drastic measures be biblically justified?

In writing Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living, Nick Spencer and Robert White have embarked upon a project that is ambitious in scope and purpose. The study has been supported by organisations such as The Jubilee Centre, The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, The John Ray Initiative, World Vision and Tearfund. While often ideological in its treatment of reality, the book ardently seeks to evince practical responses to the potentially devastating effects of climate change. Moreover, the study represents a significant development in Christian engagement with the scientific, social, moral and developmental issues associated with creating sustainable societies.

Spencer and White have divided their study into three interconnected parts. In Part 1, ‘The Nature of the Problem’, they seek to give an account of how the earth and its inhabitants have been, are being and potentially will be affected by the greenhouse gases that humans around the globe continue to emit at an increasing rate. They also highlight a link between unsustainable patterns of energy consumption and the well-being of individuals, the family unit and local communities, by providing examples such as increased frequency and distance of personal travel to and from work and the social consequences that follow (pp49-72). Spencer and White observe that, ‘you cannot hope to understand environmental issues in isolation from social ones’, a theme they continue to examine as they delve into the Word of God.

In Part 2, ‘The Biblical Perspective’, Spencer and White begin by arguing that Christians should be concerned with the physical and not just the spiritual state of the earth and its inhabitants. This is followed by a complicated explanation of how God has related to his creation throughout history. Their biblical interpretation of how God is continuing to interact with His creation, as we await ‘the renewal of all things’, sometimes conveys an awkward sense that Christians, by caring for the environment, will help bring about the new creation, which they often refer to as the ‘re-creation’ (pp94-98 and 214-216). Spencer and White often have to work very hard in order to lend biblical support to their argument. Their readers also need to work hard to understand the structure and purpose of their argument, which at times suffers from belated qualifications.

Central to Part 2 is a ‘vision of sustainable living’, which Spencer and White derive from both testaments of the Bible but chiefly from Isaiah 40–66 (p120). They do not intend this vision to be used as a restrictive ‘blueprint for sustainable living’ (p147). Rather, they aspire to present a biblical picture in which true sustainability cannot be separated from a ‘life lived under the just and loving rule of God’ (p118). Spencer and White offer six areas that ‘speak directly to the vision of sustainable living’ (p121). With mini-sermon-like treatment they consider ‘Jubilee’ (the cancelling of debt and the restoration of land title),   ‘wealth’, ‘trade’, ‘roots’ (the tension between belonging to a local spiritual community and being ready to up and leave for the sake of the Gospel), ‘nature and Sabbath’ and ‘vulnerability’ (caring for the poor and needy). These topical expositions are offered for the consideration of the principles that they elucidate rather than for their direct application as tools to counter climate change and foster sustainable communities.

While the book is written from a British perspective, the issues discussed are no less (and in some cases far more) pertinent to readers of other developed countries. Consequently, the third and final part of the study seeks to address how the developed world, and particularly Britain, might ‘translate the biblical vision and principles of sustainable living into our modern setting’ given the challenges that we may potentially face as a result of the climate change outlined in Part 1. Eight principles for sustainable living are presented. These are that we should: 1) ‘value and protect creation, seeing that as a joy rather than a burden’, 2) ‘reflect the close bond between society and environment in our decisions’, 3) ‘pursue justice for the vulnerable and marginalised’, 4) ‘not confuse wealth and value: our goal should be relational health rather than money or personal freedom’, 5) ‘favour regulated, market-based solutions that take account of natural, human and social capital’, 6) ‘express commitment to our immediate environment and favour local solutions’, 7) ‘aim to offer just and equitable access to natural resources’, and 8) ‘respond seriously and with hope’ (pp151–157).

At first glance, this book will either resonate with readers like a clanging cymbal or a sweet-sounding Stradivarius. Those who approach the issue of climate change already sceptical over the accuracy of scientific data amassed by organisations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will not be impressed by the steam-train-style, catastrophic predictions outlined in Part 1.

Nevertheless, they will encounter a sobering examination of the greed oriented society in which we live and to which we contribute each day. They may also appreciate the study’s recognition that ‘development is important to a proper Christian engagement with the environment, not least when the secular language is so often only that of “preservation” and “conservation”’ (p82). People who are tempted to dismiss the book off-hand should think twice.

While Spencer and White present numerous, specific and often controversial ideas about how to combat climate change, most of the time they do so in a reasonable and considerate fashion, weighing the pros and cons of each idea with reference to the eight principles for sustainable living outlined in Part 2. However, sometimes their tone comes across as over-enthusiastic and occasionally unsavourily sensational. But they do so unashamedly, and with some noble purposes in mind—be encouraged that they too have serious questions about the ethical implications of governments implementing measures such as road pricing.

With respect to my initial rhetorical question, my main problem with this book lies primarily in the ambiguity of Spencer and White’s methodology. They assume that their readers will have the same understanding as theirs of how to exegete and apply biblical principles from passages that do not explicitly confer a biblical command. When they touch on themes such as environmental blessings and curses over the land of Israel as a ‘direct consequence of Israel’s disobedience’, it is unclear how they envisage this specific historical reality being applied as a principle in the world today (p139). Often Spencer and White will loosely qualify how they intend to use a biblical example to arrive at one of their eight principles for sustainable living. However, at times they unintentionally reverse the significance of the biblical passages so that these end up functioning as idealistic analogies rather than foundational biblical principles upon which to build. The extent to which readers will find the biblical examples helpful in forming a vision of sustainability will ultimately lie in their understanding of biblical hermeneutics.

In many ways I found the summaries drawn by Spencer and White to be more reasonable than the means by which they reached their conclusions. Partly for this reason and partly due to our limited knowledge of how climate change will actually play out over a long period of time, I believe that the greatest significance of Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living may be its role as an initiator of ‘sustained Christian discourse’ on the topic. Nevertheless, the hope of the authors is that this discourse will encourage the working through of the practical implications of their visions. If this turns out to be the case, then Nick Spencer and Robert White will have achieved their aim to raise awareness among Christians of the potential issues humanity may encounter in the face of climate change and the responsibility, particularly for those of us who acknowledge our stewardship of God’s world, to adopt sustainable practices of living. Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living is a challenging but timely call for Christians to live sustainable lives under the just and loving rule of God.©

Jonathan Billingham is a final year student at the University of New South Wales and an academic tutor in arts and music at New College.


1 Thanks to Aidan Febery for his help in the writing of this review.

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